Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday dollars + sense: Where did all these bottles come from?

What do you buy each time you reach into a shop fridge grab a 600ml bottle of water? About one-quarter of a bottle of oil, according to most authoritative estimate - taking into account the oil that has been used to make the plastic, turn it into a bottle, transport it to you and then take it away to be buried, burnt or recycled.

And you are buying more water than you imagine: typically double what’s in the bottle when the water needed to cool and clean the bottling machines is taken into account.

So how did it come to this, and why is it still like this when both water and oil are more scarce than they have ever been?

That’s the mystery tacked by American author Elizabeth Royte in an engrossing new book entitled Bottlemania: How water went on sale and why we bought it.

We didn’t used to buy bottled water in modern times, although we certainly did in earlier times when public water wasn’t safe.

It began with Orsen Wells intoning in 1978 that “There is a spring and its name is Perrier.” Sales trippled on a campaign built not around thirst, but image.

Then in 1989 came polyethylene terephthalate...

The new so-called PET bottles were “cheap, light, shiny, bright and clean.”

The advertisements used the pop star Madonna and pictures of waterfalls and mountains to imply that drinking bottled water was a “path to enlightenment - like practicing yoga or eating organic food”.

Sales exploded from 115 million to 4 billion in seven years.

Along the way there was help from a myth – that each of us needed to drink eight glasses per day.

Royte traced it back to the food and nutrition board of the US National Research Council which once said that an adult needed one millilitre of water for each calorie of food.

But the board also went on to say (these days unreported) that most of that water was already in the food we ate. Cooked rice and noodles are full of it.

And there was a particularly nasty attempt to change the attitude of restaurant patrons. Waiters were trained to shame them into paying for bottled water, sometimes by forcing them to repeat the word “tap”.

In Canberra, with tap water too good to bottle, we should be above that.

Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought it, Bloomsbury, June 2008


The outrageous success of bottled water, in a country where more than 89 percent of tap water meets or exceeds federal health and safety regulations, regularly wins in blind taste tests against name-brand waters, and costs 240 to 10,000 times less than bottled water, is an unparalleled social phenomenon, one of the greatest marketing coups of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But why did the marketing work? At least part of the answer, I'm beginning to understand, is that bottled water plays into our ever-growing laziness and impatience.

Americans eat and drink more on the run than ever before. The author Michael Pollan reports that one in three American children eat fast food every single day, and 19 percent of American meals and snacks are eaten in the car. Bottled water fills a perceived need for convenience (convenience without the calories of soda, that is): hydration on the go, with bottles that fit in the palm of the hand, in a briefcase or purse.

According to research conducted by the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), between 1960 and 1970 the average person bought 200 to 250 packaged drinks each year-mostly soda and beer-and many of those were in refillable bottles. When I was growing up, my family drank only from the faucet and from family-size containers. We quenched our thirst, when out and about, with water from public fountains. Either that, or we waited till we got where we were going. On picnics, we might have a big plastic jug of lemonade, homemade. Sure, the grown-ups occasionally bought beer, but the idea of single-serve beverages were considered, by and large, frivolous.

Today, the tap is just as alien to today's youth, who've grown up thinking water comes in bottles, taps aren't for drinking, and fountains equal filth. Kids like having their hands on a personal water bottle, but they have no interest in washing that bottle out, to be reused another day, or otherwise taking responsibility for their waste.

Stores selling water are on every corner, while drinking fountains or restaurants happy to fill a glass for free are increasingly rare. "As refillables were phased out, as technology developed to enable single-serving plastic bottles, and as industry marketing efforts were ramped up," CRI reports, "packaged beverage consumption grew and grew." The success of portable water in the nineties hinged on the mind-set, established in the seventies and eighties, that it was okay to buy-and then toss-single servings of soda while on the go. In 2006, Americans consumed an average of 686 single-serve beverages per person per year; in 2007 we collectively drank fifty billion single-serve bottles of water alone. An entire generation is growing up with the idea that drinking water comes in small plastic bottles. Indeed, committed tap-water drinkers are far more likely to be older than devoted bottled-water drinkers.

Like iPods and cell phones, bottled water is private, portable, and individual. It's factory- sealed and untouched by human hands-a far cry from the public water fountain. (Fiji exploits this subliminal germophobia with its slogan "Untouched by Man," as does a company called Ice Rocks that sells "hygienic ice cubes"-springwater hermetically packaged in disposable plastic.) Somehow, we've become a nation obsessed with hygiene and sterility. Never, outside of an epidemic, have we been more afraid of our own bodies. Supermarkets provide antibacterial wipes for shopping cart handles. Passengers bring their own linens to cover airline pillows. Supermarkets wrap ears of corn in plastic: corn still in its husk! (The downside, besides mountains of waste, is the development of super-resistant bacteria immune to most of the commonly used antibiotics.)

In Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin Barber argues that consumer culture has turned adult citizens into children by catering to our narcissistic desires and conditioning us to passionately embrace certain brands and products as a necessary part of our lifestyles. Is it narcissism that pulls people into stores the second they feel thirsty? Or is it a need for emotional succor?

City dwellers walk down the street swigging; they stand in conversation and mark time with discreet sips. You see it in lines at the movies and in cars on the freeway. (But only in the United States, Michael Mascha, the bottled water expert I'd enticed to sample water with me, says. "In Europe, no one walks down the street sucking on a bottle of water. We wait and we have a nice meal.") Surely these people have access to water at the end of their journey and are in no danger of desiccating on the spot. No, this is water bottle as security blanket.